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Blog Archives: Entries for 2014

Latvia

So my trip of five weeks in Eastern Europe is nearing its end. I’m in Riga, capital of Latvia. Riga is nice with a lively atmosphere and interesting ‘Old Town’ with many 18th-19th century buildings. I mainly relaxed enduring the 34 degrees C heat and sweating as I joined a walking tour around of the city’s more interesting streets and squares.

Before visiting Riga, I’d been in Liepaja, on Latvia’s coast. It’s one of the nicest beach cities I’ve visited and is home of rock music and other musical styles. The soft, white sand of its beach just has to be experienced. A bus takes 3.5 hours from Liepaja to Riga and it is a nice way to see-feel the landscape.

Riga’s main attractions are, the Museum of Occupation, it takes about 3 hours with an audio guide, the river where you can row a boat or go day-time or evening kayaking and spot beavers! There are many adrenalin activities to do in Riga from paintball fights to firing a live ammunition AK47 machine gun in a former nuclear bunker, to bungee jumping or riding a Bobsleigh – on wheels in summer, on snow and ice in winter! I wanted to ride the Bobsleigh but, sadly, it’s only available at weekends.

The other main activity in Riga is drinking! Many English guys and/or girls visit Riga on Stag and Hen weekends to have fun and get very drunk on Latvia’s strong beer. There are many pubs and clubs, bars and cafes to choose from. One place, Alabar have very tasty traditional Latvian food plus live entertainment most nights. It’s in a former wine seller and has nice friendly staff. For fried breakfasts head to Kiwi Bar.

One warning which we were informed about on the walking tour, if two Latvian girls approach you together and start talking to you and invite you to a bar, don’t go with them. They’ll ask you to buy them a drink and when the bill comes, it will be around 300 Euros! It’s a scan, don’t fall for it. Apparently, several other night time establishments have similar scams, so be aware. However, the majority of Latvians appear friendly and very helpful. I really enjoyed this small delightful country and would like to return some time.

Krakow

After leaving the small dwarfs behind in Wroclaw, Tatiana and I took the Polski Bus to Krakow. Our new friend, Izabel, a lovely Polish lady living in Wroclaw, who we met on the bus, organised the tickets for us as we had no internet access. Tatiana’s phone has screen reading activation software, but her free internet connection no longer seems to work outside of Greece! Krakow is a fantastic city for both blind and sighted tourists alike. The city is reasonably easy to walk once someone has explained the directions of the main streets with one of my fingers over a map. The most important landmarks being the Royal Castle and Cathedral on Wawel (pronounced Vavel) Hill and Florianska Gate at opposite ends of the “Royal Way” The main square, once its layout is described, is also reasonably easy to navigate sighted or blind.

For blind travels like Tatiana and I there are twelve important attractions that have tactile models near the actual buildings. Once we found the models with help, we had much fun exploring and getting to understand the historical churches and other buildings I was attempting to photograph. Tatiana met a lovely Polish couple, Helena and Andrew online. They are blind and have lived in Krakow for several years. Andrew knows the layout of the city and where most of the models are located. Along with one of his friends, we spent a delightful afternoon exploring models and buildings in and around the Rynek, (Old Square or market place). Another day was spent attempting to use the hop on, hop off bus! Many locals don’t know where this bus goes from and it took several people before the particular bus stop in question was found. There seems to be two rival tour bus companies operating in Krakow. A big double decker bus and a small single one. They are both red. The single decker bus seems better for tourists: the commentary about each of the 13 locations is announced and described over speakers for all to hear. The double decker provides headphones but the commentary is often hard if not impossible to hear and the headphones are often of poor quality. Several buildings have audio guides, the one in the Krakow historical cathedral next to the castle is particularly informative. This is also where the Royal crypt is found. The castle has a good audio guide but there is not much information and you can’t stop the audio easily if you’re blind.

The food in Krakow is delicious both main courses and deserts. It’s not too expensive as long as you avoid the main square. I nearly killed Tatiana’s legs after dragging her up the former Town Hall Tower one hot afternoon. After descending to annoying patronising applause by several ignorant tourists/locals we met a lovely, kind Australian named Murray. He spent the afternoon exploring with us. We investigated the former Cloth Hall and wandered around the Underground Museum. An interesting place showcasing how early buildings were made and the town/city came into existence. Unfortunately, the audio guide worked to automatic signals and we were unable to use it!

We eventually said goodbye to our wonderful Polish friends and headed to the capital, Warsaw. An interesting city that needed more time to explore, the heat didn’t help. The old town with its castle square is at first confusing. The Royal and Vilanov castles are definitely worth exploring. And one of the best museums I’ve visited, the Warsaw Uprising Museum, is a must. The audio guide is fantastic and 47 rooms full of information gives full and graphic descriptions of the events of the uprising: why it occurred and the consequences and failed and disastrous results for the Poles. The Uprising occurred in 1944 and this year is the 70th anniversary of the event.

Tatiana finally and sadly flew back to Greece and I eventually took a night bus to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. I arrived on the morning of 24th July and took a three hour interesting walking tour around some of the lesser known parts. It was free and interesting. Now chilling.

Travel update

Tatiana and I have been travelling for about two weeks now. First three days in Berlin again, where we revisited the Neptune in Alexanderplatz to feel up the naked female statues! We also trammed it to Voltz Park, people’s park, to explore the fairy tale fountain with all the lovely statues to children’s fairy stories: Snow White and her seven dwarfs, Hansel and Gretel, etc. Then the journey to Poland. We took the train to Poznan and stayed three days. A very interesting, busy and crowded old town square (Stari Ryneck) with old houses and huge town hall and many restaurants. Unfortunately the four interesting fountains were for some unknown reason turned off! We wandered around bumping to tables and tourists alike, tripped over chairs, and generally just wandered about. One kind local guy took us along with his two young daughters to the cathedral on the island in the Warta River, but a wedding was in session, so we left!

Next was Gdansk for four nights. However, the first hostel we visited had only Polish speaking staff in a residential neighbourhood far from the centre. Gdansk seems to possess people speaking little English. We were sent to another hostel near the Fishers market, cheap but not the most helpful staff! It was near the river and only a ten minute walk to the old town. An interesting area with Long Market on the river and Long Street with its many historical old buildings. Its a little confusing as the numbers in this street run in opposing order! The most important and impressive objects being Green Gate at the one end of the Royal Way and Golden Gate at the other end with Upper Gate at the top. There are many houses with different architectural styles, the Lion’s Castle being one of the best examples. A ferry ride of two hours up the river, and on the Baltic sea, took us to Hel. Fine hot day. A picturesque seaside tourist town with one main street full of cafés, expensive restaurants and tourist shops selling the usual post cards and alike.

We also briefly visited Gdynia: a larger town with museum ships. Alas, there wasn’t enough time to visit the ships. In the evening we attempted to visit Sopot, a resort town along the coast about 30 minutes from Gdynia by electric train. However, the train was extremely fast and the doors closed very quickly as one tried to board or disembark. I got stuck between the doors one one occasion when attempting to alight. This frightened Tatiana somewhat and we returned to Gdansk by other transport. The electric train seems a little dangerous for disabled people. Likewise the trams are difficult for disabled people as they have narrow doors, three or four steps and often don’t announce stops. If the do make announcements they’re often too quiet to hear. When you talk to Polish people or ask for directions, they will help, but don’t often approach you without being asked first.

Next was Wroclaw, the nicest city so far. A lovely old main square with several historic buildings and churches. Each city mentioned in this blog has tactile models of important churches and city halls for blind people to feel and Wroclaw is no exception. Tatiana and I explored with our hands the St Mary and St Elizabeth churches, the city hall and St John the Baptist Cathedral. Wroclaw is notable for its 300 dwarfs! Small people who live on the ground and visit and touch people at night! They are interesting and seem to do all tasks from firemen to travellers, professors to disabled dwarfs! Great fun for us, although not always easy to spot! A bear of metal was also discovered on our explorations.

We took an eco-tour in an electric buggy. This cool local guy named Chris drove us around Wroclaw at night visiting some of the most interesting sites. We gained a discount which was cool and he let us feel several interesting buildings, dwarfs and also took us to a few colourful and musical fountains – including the multimedia fountain at the Centenary Hall – a couple of kilometres from the centre.
Now we’re in Krakow, Poland’s home of history and culture, a tourist trap and once the medieval capital of Poland. We go on a boat ride along the Wistler river later and also visit the Royal Castle and Cathedral. Another blog to follow soon.

Back in Bucharest

Now back in Bucharest after a fascinating trip. I’ve visited Chernivtsi, Ukraine, it is also called Cernau in Romania. A historical city about three hours bus ride north-east of Suceava, Romania. After three days there I headed to my 94th country, Republic of Moldova. I stayed in Chisinau, the country’s capital. It’s about a 7-9 hour night bus ride from Chernivtsi. Nice quiet people and little to do or see. Some lovely parks, an orthodox church, a triumphal arch and several bars-restaurants-clubs. I spent one day travelling to a town called Orhiel Vec to visit a historical monastery and church in a cave with a spectacular view of a river. The day was very hot and I was travelling with my backpack. On the climb down I took a wrong turn and walked about 2 km in the wrong direction in countryside along rough road/tracks with small houses and cows, goats and chickens before stopping a passing car whose driver gave me a ride back to the bus stop, where I caught the return bus to Chisinau. Crossing a street to catch a minibus to the large bus station, a bus/truck ran over my stick and bent the end. I was unharmed and continue my journey. Five hours later I was deposited in Iași, Romania (pronounced Yash). The bus driver actually drove along one of the old main streets and dropped me outside my accommodation. Iași is a lively student city and former capital of Romania. It’s on seven hills and the parks are delightful. The main attraction seems to be the Palace of Culture with its museums. A concert seemed to be occurring during my brief visit. I met up with a couple of friends I’d met in Bucharest before catching a night train back to Bucharest. In two days I fly back to England.

Transylvania

After leaving Brașov, I headed to Sighișoara, another historical Saxon town. I stayed in a hotel near the train/bus station although the staff didn’t speak any English! An afternoon was spent exploring the historical citadel with its clock tower, which I climbed. There is also a Germanic church from 1298 and wooden covered stairs which eventually lead to a church on the hill.

My next destination was Cluj. The bus for some reason was gone so I took a very slow and hot train to Cluj-Napoca, Transylvania’s largest city. A university town with large squares and many activities. My first evening was spent with a Dutch backpacker and Larisa, a local girl, sampling the sights and enjoying the evening sun. The following two evenings were spent absorbing local music and entertainment. On my final day, I took a bus to Turda – a historical town with a large salt mine. The mine was used and built between 1690-1930 for mining salt for the Austrian empire. Some of the tunnels are named after Austrian royalty. It was really cool, 12 degrees in the mine and my guide and I descended to a depth of 120 metres (400 feet) during my tour. At the mine’s lowest level is a lake and an island with rides available in plastic canoes. Much of the salt is crystallised and the echo in some of the chambers is tremendous.

After Cluj, I visited Sighetu Marmației near the Ukrainian border. Again a hostel with no English speaking staff. I met some more backpackers and spent a day exploring the city centre, visiting the former prison, now a museum to those who were political prisoners and died during the Communist period. I also briefly visited Eli Weseler’s house, now a museum to the Jews. I then attempted to travel to Suceava, but the only bus of the day was full. Eventually I learnt a night train was available with a change in Salva during the night.

In the early hours of Friday I arrived in Suceava and headed 7 km out in the suburbs to stay at a lovely family run hostel in the countryside. The couple of course spoke no English but were kind and helped me organise a tour to visited the painted monasteries. With rain in the air and mist on the horizon, my guide and I drove around the area visiting four historical 15-16th monasteries, and I had their paintings on both exterior and interior described. Biblical scenes of Jesus on his journey to the crucifixion and resurrection, a last judgement scene, and in one church, the siege of Constantinople in one scene! At last, I boarded a bus and three hours later crossed into Ukraine at the city of Chernivtsi, where I now reside. More to follow later.